US Mash-Up May Save Obama from Showdown with Congress

Polling shows that the US public is becoming more concerned about climate change and more inclined to support measures that prevent it.    A recent study by Duke university shows that support for action has increased to the highest level since 2006.

Doing it the easy way

Doing it the easy way

Obama is responding to that change in public mood as he delivered a call for Congress to bring a cap-and-trade bill in his state of the union address.  But is federal legislation on cap-and-trade really necessary?  Action is already taking hold through a number of different state, interstate and federal initiatives.   This mash-up of climate policies could allow Obama to deliver lower emissions and  green growth without a divisive showdown with the Republicans on federal legislation.  It could also point the way for Europe.

Firstly, the Duke survey (which covered voters from all political parties) shows 64% of Americans now strongly or somewhat favour regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The report makes clear that “although Democrats are more willing than Republicans to support all policies, the preference for a regulatory or clean energy approach is shared across party lines”.

Great work on the regulations, but maybe sack the branding guy.

Great work on the regulations, but maybe sack the branding guy.

This is exactly the approach being taken by the federal environmental protection agency (EPA).  By April the EPA is expected to complete carbon emission standards for building new power plants that would effectively prevent any new coal-fired facilities from being built.  Regulation over existing coal-fired plant seems likely to follow.   There will be further legal challenges, but the outgoing head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson,  has laid the ground for her successor to institute comprehensive regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from numerous sources.  If the Duke survey is correct, this will be the path of least resistance amongst US voters.

Has Arnie done the hard work for Obama?

Has Arnie done the hard work for Obama?

In the meantime, California has instituted a comprehensive cap-and-trade program and the US’s first market based carbon reduction mechanism – RGGI – is showing signs of a revival.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative had been derided by commentators since falling gas prices reduced demand for dirty power and sent the price for RGGI allowances tumbling.  But the nine participating north-eastern states announced plans to tighten the program’s cap this week triggering a surge in prices.  Revenues from RGGI allowance auctions are ploughed into clean energy initiatives, meaning that a higher price in RGGI phase 2 could lead to a wave of renewable energy investments in the north east.

US emissions are currently falling.   Investment in renewable energy is already strong, though that growth is partially a result of an Obama federal incentive plan that was introduced as a response to the financial crisis.

As US public opinion swings behind action on climate, the strong progress already being made at both state and national level may mean that a divisive federal climate bill may be unnecessary.  Working out how these initiatives mesh together will be a challenge.    But if it can be achieved, Obama will simply need to show strong leadership (for example through tonight’s speech, but also internationally) and support for the EPA, and the US could become a leader on climate action without a damaging showdown on capital hill.

Success in this regard opens a question for EU policy makers.  Could the EU learn from an organic, state-led policy response to climate change rather than jumping through political hoops to save its increasing embattled flag-ship, the EU ETS?

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